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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Did You Notice?: Does NASCAR Practice Make Perfect?

Did You Notice? … Practice doesn’t always make perfect? So often, we analyze NASCAR practice results over the weekend to find clues as to who will do well on Sunday. But do the one-lap fast practice speeds matter over a 400 or 500-mile race the next day?

I took the 15 races this season, looked at who turned the fastest lap in final practice and then where they finished. The results weren’t exactly, um, predictable….

FINAL PRACTICE LEADERS (ONE-LAP SPEED)

Daytona: Darrell Wallace Jr. (finished second in the race)

Atlanta: Ryan Newman (22nd)

Las Vegas: Ryan Blaney (fifth)

Phoenix: Kevin Harvick (won)

California: Kyle Busch (third)

Martinsville: Martin Truex Jr. (fourth)

Texas: Jimmie Johnson (35th)

Bristol: David Ragan (12th)

Richmond: Kyle Larson (seventh)

Talladega: Jamie McMurray (28th)

Dover: Aric Almirola (11th)

Kansas: Kevin Harvick (won)

Charlotte: Erik Jones (19th)

Pocono: Kyle Busch (third)

Michigan: Kevin Harvick (second)

So while winning final practice is nice, only twice this season has the Happy Hour champion gone on to capture the race itself. And in both of those cases, it’s been dominant Happy Harvick leading the way.

Overall, these drivers captured eight top-five finishes, but their performance combined still wouldn’t be good enough to lead the point standings. Their average finish of 10.3 is respectable but not championship caliber.

That gives some legs to an argument the sport is still (somewhat) unpredictable. After all, if the guy fastest in Happy Hour won every week, why run the race on Sunday?

But that’s not the only indicator we can use from practice. After all, a driver can run one hot lap and have a miserable long-run setup in what’s been a season filled with chunks of green-flag racing. Look what happens when we switch from fastest lap to best 10-lap average in Happy Hour.

FINAL PRACTICE LEADERS (10-LAP AVERAGE)

Daytona: Kasey Kahne (34th)

Atlanta: Denny Hamlin (fourth)

Las Vegas: Kyle Larson (third)

Phoenix: Kevin Harvick (won)

California: Kevin Harvick (35th)

Martinsville: Brad Keselowski (10th)

Texas: Kevin Harvick (second)

Bristol: Kyle Busch (won)

Richmond: Kyle Larson (seventh)

Talladega: Kevin Harvick (fourth)

Dover: Clint Bowyer (second)

Kansas: Kyle Larson (fourth)

Charlotte: Erik Jones (19th)

Pocono: Kevin Harvick (fourth)

Michigan: Kevin Harvick (second)

Just like before, only twice did the driver with the fastest 10-lap average wind up winning the race. But there’s also a higher degree of consistency here. These drivers combined for 12 top-10 finishes, a total that would be tied for the series lead. Their average finish is also an impressive 8.8. Only Busch (7.3) and Logano (8.1) are better in that category this year.

So crew chiefs (and daily fantasy players) are right to start focusing on speed over a longer period of time instead of who just ran one fast lap. Expect that trend towards long-run cars to continue, then, with fewer restarts and short green-flag stints at the end of races. And did you notice who’s got the most 10-lap average “wins” in final practice? Harvick’s an impressive six-for-15 to also back up what’s been his best season behind the wheel of the No. 4 Ford.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….

  • After a rough season, NASCAR racing in Iowa was up 16 percent year-over-year in the Nielsens. Sure, FOX Sports 1 had a strong lead-in (World Cup coverage) but they’re not exactly the same audience. It’s notable for multiple factors: Iowa was arguably the best race of the XFINITY season, there were no Cup drivers in the field and a late start time didn’t harm the numbers. The only downside? An uptick in performance gives FOX no reason to bring those commentators back to the racetrack. Why spend the money? More people are watching.
  • Just three road course ringers are in this weekend’s field at Sonoma: Tomy Drissi, Chris Cook and Justin Marks. (Parker Kligerman, who’s run oval races with the No. 96 car, does not count in my book). Not only is the field itself weak, but a race we often speak of in Cinderella terms hasn’t fit the glass slipper as of late. Here’s a quick look at last year’s Sonoma top 10 by team: Stewart-Haas Racing (three), Joe Gibbs Racing (two), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Team Penske, Chip Ganassi and Wood Brothers Racing. There’s not exactly an upset pick in that bunch; in fact, the best those smaller teams could do was Michael McDowell running a distant 14th. Barring something quirky, I also expect more of the same this Sunday (sorry, AJ Allmendinger).
  • One other note about this season to date… clean air. It’s made qualifying crucial in a year where track position matters more than ever. Through 15 races, 80 percent of winners this season posted a top-10 qualifying effort. It just goes to show the fastest drivers every week continue to start up front (except for when they fail pre-qualifying inspection).

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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One comment

  1. It’s common knowledge that drivers don’t show what their car is capable of in practice. A better comparison would be their practice speed versus where they qualified and how much faster they are.